Fourteen elephants were found dead from poisoning at an oil palm plantation in Sabah back in 2013. Only one baby elephant from the herd escaped alive – he was later named “Joe”.
This was one of the events that influenced British wildlife photojournalist Aaron “Bertie” Gekoski to get involved in a new web series about conservation in Sabah.
Borneo’s rainforests are packed with exotic animals, including orang utans, sun bears and the world’s smallest elephants. However, they are all facing colossal threats from deforestation, the illegal wildlife/pet trade and the traditional medicine trade.
The Sabah Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU) is an elite group of vets and rangers on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to deal with human-animal conflicts.
Through rehabilitation programmes, relentless rescues and relocations, they are tasked with saving Sabah’s wildlife – and their exhausting, often dangerous work is now the subject of a new online show called Borneo Wildlife Warriors.
“The series is basically a reality show on our wildlife rescues,” said Dr Sen Nathan, head of the WRU which is part of the Sabah Wildlife Department.
“It’s a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on at our animal rescues. It also portrays the many wonderful characters within WRU whose great deeds and heroic attempts save wildlife in Sabah.”
The series was filmed by Scubazoo, a natural history video production and photography outfit.
Here, we meet the heroes of Borneo’s jungles, as they welcome Bertie into their ranks and attempt to turn him into a fully-fledged ranger.
Exhausting and stimulating
“The first season documents ‘Boot Camp’ as I am put through my paces to see if I’m fit to join the guys in the field,” says Bertie, in an e-mail interview.
Each episode is about six to eight minutes in length.
The second season will deal with hardcore rescues and relocations such as capturing elephants and orang utans in plantations and assisting in sun bear medical checks.
Bertie spent seven years in Africa primarily looking at human-animal conflict, including Namibia’s seal culls, shark finning in Mozambique and Zimbabwe’s elephant crisis.
He was then approached by Scubazoo CEO Simon Christopher about coming to Sabah and presenting their newly launched online channel, SZtv, over two years ago.
Their first web series was Borneo From Below (www.borneofrombelow.com) which addressed environmental issues such as shark finning, the seahorse trade and plastic pollution.
“With 29 episodes, that series had a great response,” says Bertie. “People responded in a very positive way, indicating public interest in conservation. For example, the episode on plastics was viewed over 130,000 times on Facebook.”
He believes the series was successful in showcasing Borneo’s amazing underwater world to a worldwide audience while highlighting important environmental issues.
“While shooting Borneo From Below, I heard all about the problems facing Borneo’s elephants and wanted to get more involved in the battle to save them,” he says.
“So rather than just working as a photo-journalist, I approached Sen about joining WRU on the frontline of conservation. Thankfully he agreed!” he recalls.
“This kickstarted the most incredible, exhausting and stimulating year of my life.”
On the frontline
Bertie says that the team at Scubazoo always do their best to tackle these issues in a very sensitive way.
Watching the pilot episode (https://goo.gl/dX2J1j), this writer sees a contemporary style mixing visuals from unusual angles (including super close-ups).
I watch Bertie swapping his diving fins for jungle boots and then he gets to know Joe, the orphan elephant, who has WRU’s team of vets and rangers as a “surrogate family”.
While war journalists seek to be embedded with troops fighting wars in the Middle East, Bertie has a quest to be embedded with the WRU in the ultimate adventure: to be a ranger in the frontline to save Sabah’s wildlife.
“Ultimately the goal is to show what a special place we live in, and to highlight some of the threats it faces … without wagging fingers or preaching.”
To create Borneo Wildlife Warriors, they worked in collaboration with WRU and the Wildlife Department.
“So everything we release will have been cleared by them,” adds Bertie, allaying any fears of “overly sensitive” issues.
“Our goal is to make conservation accessible to all. It doesn’t have to be doom and gloom. It can even be entertaining. We call it ‘funservation’.”
Poignant, exhilarating, and at times amusing, Borneo Wildlife Warriors is an extraordinary journey into the heart of Borneo’s jungles.
Featuring elephants, orang utans, sun bears, pangolins and much more, the series promises to be as thrilling as it is informative, with breathtaking relocations and rescues of critically endangered animals.
The world needs to know about these fascinating, yet threatened species and ecosystems – before it is too late.
Episodes of Borneo Wildlife Warriors will be released on the SZtv Facebook page, and all SZtv programmes can be watched online at Scubazoo.tv.
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